Thursday, December 29, 2011

9. The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales

Created by Chris van Allsburg
Introduced by Lemony Snicket
$24.99, ages 10 and up, 208 pages
Fourteen celebrated authors sort out the mysteries of one of the most beloved literary ruses of all time, in this wonderfully eerie story collection.
Authors from Jules Feiffer to Kate DiCamillo hone their imaginations on pictures from Chris van Allsburg’s acclaimed The Mysteries of Harris Burdick to create their own incredible tales.
The result is a captivating collection that leaves readers imagining that the authors, by some magical turn, tapped into Burdick’s imagination and unearthed what he was thinking.
The collection is introduced by Lemony Snicket and comprises 14 stories, including one by Allsburg, in which he offers a magical twist on his picture, “Oscar and Alphonse.”
Each story is unpredictable, and as odd and fantastical as its picture. Readers will get a delightful twinge of unease as stories progress, much like they do from a Rod Sterling mystery.
Allsburg's is certainly the most exciting, as here he participates in his own ruse: as he surmises what's going on in the unfinished work of an illusive writer-illustrator that he has created.
In it, a girl named Alice walks off into the woods and meets up with two caterpillars who can communicate, in this case spell words with their bodies. 
Though no one in Alice’s family believes her caterpillars can communicate, they humor her because they are delighted by the information she says the caterpillars have given her.
Just before the caterpillars transform into butterflies, they dictate to her the answer to a mathematical puzzle that’s confounded her father and brothers, known as The Farkas Conjecture.
The best stories are humorously dark, such as Jon Scieszka’s twist on the picture, “Under the Rug,”about the importance of listening to your grandma, no matter how crazy she sounds.
In it, a grandmother rattles off sayings to her grandson before he does his daily chore of sweeping. But the boy doesn’t pay her much mind, especially when the sayings really matter, mainly the one, “Never sweep a problem under the rug.”
Looking for a shortcut to his chore, the boy sweeps all of the dust bunnies and crumbs under the rug instead of into a dust pan. Then one day, the mess is so big and sorted, it morphs into a living, breathing dust devil with an appetite only a granny can fill.
Another gem cleverly plays off the open-ended nature of Allsburg’s book: how some mysteries, namely  what’s going on in Burdick’s pictures, may never be definitively answered.
For “Mr. Linden’s Library,” Walter Dean Myers imagines that a girl is drawn to a book that belonged to a late sailor, only to be haunted by the book’s interminable storyline.
In that book, a boy swims out in a bay with a dolphin, but can never get home.
Each time the girl picks up the book to read what happened next, the story expands, and the boy drifts farther from home and encounters more difficult challenges.
The girl is anxious for a happy resolution, to know the boy eventually gets home safely, but the book and the boy’s trials continue to write themselves with no resolution in sight.
Other authors offer similarly surreal tales. Among them, Sherman Alexie, Gregory Maguire, Cory Doctorow, Linda Sue Park, Lois Lowry, Tabitha King, M.T. Anderson and Louis Sachar.
When The Mysteries of Harris Burdock was published in 1984, it was a sensation, and has since spurred countless writing exercises in schools, even led horror novelist Stephen King to lend his own spin to a picture.
That short story, based on “The House on Maple Street,” tells of a house raising itself and blasting off into the sky with a cruel stepfather inside. It appears in King’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes, and is retold in this collection as well.
Allsburg’s experiment, begun in 1984, was to see if he could spark his readers’ imaginations. The seed of it was a fictional author’s note printed in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick and reproduced in this collection.
In that note, he tells about a writer-illustrator by the name of Harris Burdick who showed up at an editor’s office in 1954 with samples of his work, the 14 black-and-white drawings that readers see.
The editor, Peter Wenders, was intrigued, and asked Burdick to return the next day with the rest of his drawings and the manuscripts he’d written for each picture collection.
However, Burdock didn’t keep his appointment and was never seen from again. And his sample drawings?
They were stashed away until Allsburg happened upon them while visiting Wenders, by then retired.
Allsburg, being a writer-illustrator himself, asked if he could publish the pictures in hope of discovering who Burdick was.

And thus began the mysteries, all a delightful figment of Allsburg’s imagination meant to inspire ours.

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